Notes on communication


John Scalzi's posted ten points about free speech, conversation, debate and related subjects. There's lots of good stuff there: "8. If people do not engage you, it is not necessarily because they are afraid to engage you. Maybe they don’t have the time, or interest. Maybe they think you’re too ignorant to engage, either on the specific topic or in matters of rhetoric. Maybe they don’t want to either implicity or explicitly let you share in their credibility. Maybe they think you’re an asshole, and want nothing to do with you. Maybe it’s combination of some or all of the above. They may or may not tell you why."

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The difference between "being right" and "being persuasive"

If you're into science literacy — or, even, if you're just into arguing with other people on the Internet about science — you need to read this post by neuroscientist Chris Holdgraf. It's a great explanation of why "the data speaks for itself" isn't a particularly good retort (and can, in fact, be misleading) and why sacrificing a little accuracy for the sake of understanding is a better idea than it sounds.

Senator requests NASA investigation of Space Vikings

Image: Ved Chirayath

This photo, taken by astronautics grad student and photographer Ved Chirayath, was meant to be a bit of free promotion for NASA and space exploration. It's part of an art exhibition called Physics in Vogue, which combines real science with the style of fashion photography. With the help of a Viking re-enactment troupe and some of his colleagues from the Ames Research Center, he put together a shot that was meant to connect current NASA projects to the exploration-oriented Viking culture. What if two of Earth's greatest explorers met face-to-face?

The photo was done on Chirayath's own time, using funds from two arts grants that had nothing to do with NASA. But it has become the center of an extensive investigation initiated by Senator Chuck Grassley, aimed at discovering whether dastardly NASA scientists were using taxpayer money to make whimsical photos. They weren't. Ironically, though, the investigation did use taxpayer money. More, Chirayath estimates, than it would have cost him to get such a photo done by a professional.

New, high-tech cancer detector: Great idea, or still in need of work?

MelaFind is a new device that helps doctors identify melanoma skin cancers. In many places, it's being reported as the greatest breakthrough in skin cancer prevention to come along in decades. But, notes Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review, those pieces leave out the fact that MelaFind is actually fairly controversial. A lot of cancer researchers and docs are worried that it will give patients and doctors a false sense of security — a big issue considering the fact that MelaFind is only designed to identify small melanomas. It could turn up false negatives (or false positives) with non-melanoma skin cancers or melanomas that don't fall into a narrow type range.

Yet another reason why jargon sucks

Yes, it's useful for communicating within your group, but as soon as you step outside that circle jargon becomes a problem. That's true even for scientists trying to communicate between disciplines and sub-disciplines of a field. At Ars Technica, John Timmer talks about jargon acronyms that look the same, but mean totally different things depending on what science you do. One of his examples: CTL. If you study flies, this can refer to a specific gene. For people who work with mice, it's a reference to curly tails. For immunologists, it's a type of white blood cell — cytotoxic T lymphocyte.

Do GMOs yield more food? The answer is in the semantics

Today, on Twitter, I learned something new and interesting from environmental reporter Paul Voosen. Over the years, I've run into reports (like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists) showing that genetically modified crops — i.e. Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, which is really the stuff we're talking about most of the time in these situations — don't increase intrinsic yields of those crops. But I've also seen decent-looking data that seemed to suggest exactly the opposite. So what gives?

Turns out, this is largely an issue of terminology.

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Are "theory" and "hypothesis" dead?

Do you understand the difference between a "hypothesis" and a "theory"? Physics professor Rhett Alain thinks you probably don't. But he says that's not your fault. The words just aren't terribly precise, at least in the public parlance, and they only serve to make discussions about science confusing. He has a modest proposal: Let's replace them both with something that makes sense to the general public.

Great moments in pedantry: Actually, there is a Jedi mind meld

It's right there in the Expanded Universe book series, says Chris Peterson, a research assistant in MIT's Center for Civic Media. It's a form of group communication. What's more, Peterson writes, if you follow the theories of anthropologist and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the Jedi meld might actually be the most useful tool for Obama to employ. (Thanks Ryan!)

Why do dogs bark? (And what are they saying when they do?)

Barking might just be a reflex for agitated dogs. It might be a side-effect of domestication — i.e., when you select for less-aggressive animals you get ones that tend to bark. Or, it really might have meaning, both for other dogs and for humans. At Scientific American, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods describe some of the research on dog communication, including studies that show both humans and dogs can tell the difference between barks associated with, say, food, and barks associated with the presence of a threatening stranger.

TEDx Meta

The New Yorker's Nathan Heller looks at five of the most popular TED Talks of all time and uses them to explain why, exactly, this series of public lectures is so much more popular than all other public lecture series.

Beautiful watercolor notes from the Aspen Environmental Forums

I've been live-tweeting today from the Aspen Environmental Forums. But in a session this morning, I noticed that my friend Rachel Weidinger—director for the ocean advocacy group Upwell—had a far niftier way of taking notes and communicating what she was learning. While I opened up my iPad, Rachel opened up a full set of watercolor paints.

What she produced was something more akin to illuminated manuscripts than paintings—collections of short quotes and key ideas, done up in vibrant colors and surrounded by thematic doodles. It's great stuff, and a really interesting way to process and present information.

Rachel was kind enough to let me post her notes here. This page comes from the panel we attended this morning, all about climate change and the long-term impacts those changes are likely to have on regional weather. Check out more of her illuminated notes at Flickr.

Bloggers and students: Apply for Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize

If you live in the UK or Ireland, write about science, and have not been paid for that work, then you are eligible to apply for the Wellcome Trust's Science Writing Prize. The Prize is aimed at fostering high quality writing among science communicators who are either just starting their careers, or who write mainly as a hobby. Student journalists are eligible. So are people who blog about science. There are separate categories for professional scientists, and interested laypeople. The deadline is April 25.

Describe a flame, win a VIP pass to the World Science Festival

What is a flame?

If you can explain that, on a level that an 11-year-old can understand, then you could win a VIP pass to the World Science Festival, May 30 to June 3 in New York City.

This is one of those questions that is harder to answer than it first appears. Alan Alda, the man behind this contest, asked his teacher that question when he was 11. Her answer, "It’s oxidation," meant nothing to him. So this contest isn't just about accuracy, it's about communication.

I often hear people complain about journalists and science popularizers "dumbing down" the science. And I suppose that's something reasonable to complain about, if what you mean is that those people are getting the science grossly wrong.

But that's not usually what "dumbing down" means. In fact, most of the time, when somebody is complaining about a dumbing down of anything, I've found that what they mean is that the topic has been made accessible and entertaining to a broad audience. Dumbing down means taking the information beyond the experts and enthusiasts, and convincing people that this is a topic they should be interested in. That's not a bad thing. It just means that there are different ways to reach different people with the same information.

To me, that's what this contest is about. Explain a flame—without using jargon—and make the science behind it capture a kid's imagination. That's not easy. It will take some dumbing down. But I think some of you can do this. And I'm excited to see the results.

Entries can be turned in as text, video, audio, or graphics. But they're due by April 2, so get to work!

Enter Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

Via Lauren Wolf

Image: Flames, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from juniorvelo's photostream

Tweeting and talking about science communication

I'm at the Science Online conference this week in Raleigh, North Carolina. SciO brings together scientists, bloggers, and journalists to talk about communicating science to the public, how we screw it up, and how we can do it better. You can follow along at the #scio12 hashtag. I'll be live tweeting from the sessions I attend and there will be a lot of really cool discussions about science education and science communications that I know a lot of you will be interested in.

How To: Debunk a myth

I'm going to bookmark The Debunking Handbook, a quick-read pdf with all sorts of great advice for effectively countering misinformation. It's put together by the same people behind Skeptical Science, my go-to source for detailed, easy-to-understand debunkings of pretty much every climate-science-related myth you can rattle off.